The re-election in October of a former Communist, Aleksander Kwasniewski, to a five-year term as president of Poland should be a lesson to the Polish church, according to Stanislaw Obirek, S.J., editor of the Polish review of spirituality, Zycie Duchowe. For me and others, Father Obirek said, that was a clear message that the church should not try to intervene so directly in the political sphere. The better way is to maintain a separation between church and state, as is done in the United States.
The candidate who was backed by the Catholic radio station, Marya, and the Catholic newspaper, Nasz Dziennik, received less than one percent of the vote. The newspaper and the radio station, which take a somewhat fundamentalist position in religious matters, were compared by Father Obirek to Mother Angelica’s television broadcasts in the United States.
During Communist times, he observed, the church served as a bulwark against a totalitarian state that tried to destroy our history, our culture, our Christian tradition. The church created a space of freedom, so to speak, in which humanitarian and Christian values could be preserved. During that period, he added, priests, brothers, nuns and members of the hierarchy like Cardinal Stepan Wyszynski acted with heroism. Intellectuals and the church co-existed in a positive manner.
It was a wonderful time, he said, because we were all together. Once democratic elections were introduced in 1989, however, the people wanted to have the right to select the candidates of their choice rather than be directed in their choices by the Polish hierarchy. They grew unwilling to hear the paternalistic voices of the bishops who had grown accustomed to guiding them in political matters, and so three years later, former Communists won in the parliamentary elections.
Part of the challenge for the Polish church stems from what he termed its fear of the pluralistic nature of modern society. The church in Poland, he said, continues to use the language of confrontation, a language that was effective under Communism but that now has lost its effectiveness. The fear is reflected in the training of seminarians: they are isolated from university life, and this results in a tendency to be closed-minded. Only about five of 40 diocesan bishops allow their seminarians to study theology in the universities with lay students.
Even the relationship with the pope has its complexities. On the one hand, there is pride in the Polish clergy that he is one of us, the first Slavic pope. But the pope himself, Father Obirek pointed out, has changed during the 20 years of his pontificate. In his extensive travels, the pope has learned from the example of churches in other parts of the world, and his view of Christianity is wider than that of Eastern Europe. In this sense, a certain tension exists between Rome and the Polish episcopate. The ad limina meetings that take place between the pope and the Polish hierarchy in Rome, he continued, usually finish with a strong suggestion that the episcopate be more present and open in regard to modern pluralistic society.
The reluctance to accept this greater openness, according to Father Obirek, is reflected in the Polish hierarchy’s attitude toward the documents of the Second Vatican Councilaccepted in theory, but only to a limited degree carried out in practice. The documents of Vatican II are on the curriculum of seminaries; yet when it comes to their impact in daily life, little attention is paid to their implications for lay people, for instance, and the same holds true for ecumenical dialogue. In general, the bishops and priests have only limited interest in what is new, and they are unwilling to learn: this is the underlying problem of the church in Poland. Father Obirek spoke of a certain nostalgia on the part of most of the bishops and many priests who long for the kind of church that existed in the Middle Ages, when everything was done according to set rules. But the pressures of the culture and of today’s politics, he said, show that this cannot be the way.
The same mentality, he added, exists among many in the large Polish population in the United States. Chicago alone has a million Polesthe largest Polish community of any city in the world except for Warsaw. But in his visits to Chicago, he found that many of the the Polish clergy living there have no desire to understand more about the pluralistic society in which they are living, and this has caused a problem for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Some Polish priests, he observed, tend to resist being integrated into its archdiocesan pastoral programs.
Hopeful change is starting to take place, Father Obirek added, in that the Polish hierarchy has begun to send some of its seminarians to Chicago’s seminary. The Chicago archdiocese pays for this. After ordination, the young Polish priests stay on in Chicago to work for several years and only then go back to Poland, having gained a greater openness to pluralistic ideas. Father Obirek’s own formation experience as a Jesuit was along these lines: he studied and worked for a number of years in Italy and Germany, but eventually returned to take up assignments in Poland. Sending seminarians to study in other countries for the sake of giving them a more pluralistic exposure to the modern world is practiced not only by the Jesuits, but also by congregations like the Dominicans, the Salesians and the Benedictines.
Seminarians return with new ideas, he noted. Later, some of their seminarian friends, whom they came to know during their studies abroad, may come to visit them in Poland, so a kind of exchange of ideas becomes possiblean exchange that can lead to a broader understanding of the multicultural aspects of Catholicism and the world at the beginning of the 21st century. We have to realize that Catholicism is not to be found only in Poland, he said. We must free ourselves from the sense that we are the most important in terms of what Catholicism is. We have to learn from our neighbors the Ukrainians and Romanians and the Catholic Church in many other countries in order to be part of a meaningful process of inculturation.
Since the fall of Communism, secular society in Poland has undergone dramatic changes. When drug addiction and crime began to assume a high profile, the church and society were not prepared to face this dark side of modernity, Father Obirek said. The church was preoccupied with building churchesas it continues to do, often with funds raised by Polish Catholics in Chicago at the urging of their pastorsand in arguing with the government about the right to provide religious instruction in the schools. Politicians were also caught unaware by the shift to a democracy, being too euphoric about the regaining of freedom of speech. But now, he said, we have a serious problem with issues like drug addiction.
He spoke of a friend from his high school and university days whom he met after 20 years: Although he has a master’s degree, he is a drug addict, has lost his job and is homeless. Through this friend, I know that there are many like himthey find the world too complicated now, and because they feel unable to adapt to the new order of things, just give up. Drug addiction is a problem not only for university-age students, but for students in high school as well. Thankfully, Polish laws for drug offenses do not begin to approach in severity the mandatory minimum laws of many states here, where nonviolent drug offenders face long years behind bars.
Overall, the Polish economy itself is doing well. Newspapers describe Poland as one of the Central European tigers, Father Obirek noted. In 2003 we expect that Poland will join the European Union, if it continues at the same rate of economic growth. But there is a dark side to this too, in that in some areas, like Silesiathe heart of the metallurgy industryunemployment is high. I have a 17-year-old cousin there who is studying mechanics, but he has little hope of finding a job when he completes his course of studies. As a result, he said, many young people in depressed parts of the country want to emigrate and take the risk of working illegally in countries like Germany.
Agriculture is another area of difficulty. The country is 30 percent agricultural. During Communist times, farmers were allowed to have a few acres for themselves, which enabled thempoor though they wereto preserve a sense of ownership on their small plots of land. These farmers, working their small holdings with old-fashioned equipment, will not be able to compete in the European Union with the new technology of farming. It will be a complicated task to deal with this agricultural issue, he concluded.
Of particular interest to Father Obirek is the question of Jewish-Christian dialogue. I was born in Narol, a small town close to the Ukrainian border, which was near one of the biggest death camps during the Holocausta place named Belzec, where 600,000 Jews were killed. He described his slowly dawning awareness of what had happened to the Jews, who at one time made up 50 percent of the population of Narol. I realized as a teenager that people who had once been neighbors had all disappeared, but that nobody spoke about it. It was like a form of sociocultural amnesia. When he asked the parish priest about it, the priest said, That is a hard question; it’s better not to speak about it. Nor could his parents, who were too young during World War II to know what was really going on, offer explanations. It has become my personal question: how to explain this great tragedy that had befallen my neighbors, he said. In Poland now, there are only between 5,000 and 10,000 Jews. Those who weren’t killed left the country.
As director of the Center for Culture and Dialogue in Kracow, Father Obirek is working with the New York-based Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation to establish an educational center in Auschwitz that will memorialize victims of the Holocaust and seek to bring about a greater understanding among people of different religious traditions. He hopes to collaborate with friends from other religious traditions in writing about the common heritage of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Eastern and Central Europe.
Father Obirek acknowledged that his analysis of the situation in Poland is a very personal one. His views were shaped, he said, not only by his life in Poland itself, but also by his visits to other countries, especially the United Stateswhere open dialogue and honest critique can be carried out amid the refreshing freedoms you perhaps take for granted. He emphasized that he continues to learn from his contacts with representatives of other Christian denominations and religions, as well as from agnostics. Because my own faith life has been enriched and strengthened as a result of these conversations, he said, I have grown to appreciate the value of honest dialogue and openness as a way of being fully human in the world of today.